This is a story about why Africa is important to me. I lived there as a very young child and so the story is fragmentary, distant and made up of sensory and emotional memories. And yet it has played an important part in my creative life and my internal world since I was six weeks old.
Family photo: Alex with this mother and father in Kenya where his father worked for Christian Aid.
My Dad was employed by Christian Aid to run a conference centre in Limuru near Nairobi and to report on church-funded projects around East Africa. He was living there already when I was born. I was born in England rather than Kenya because my Mum had discovered too late that, the vaccines she and I needed to take required me to be six weeks old before I could have them. Otherwise we would have gone to join my Dad in Kenya some months earlier.
Alex as a newborn in England with his maternal grandparents, Alex’s grandfather was a Methodist Minister in Somerset, England.
I arrived on Monday, 30 December 1968 at 8 in the morning. I was born in Somerset, South West England and I spent my first 6 weeks in my grandparents’ home. When I was properly vaccinated Mum and I flew to Nairobi. My Mum was 24 and had not much traveled on her own outside England. Going to Nairobi on her own with a tiny baby on a long flight was very difficult. What’s more when we at last arrived at Nairobi, my father was not there to meet us. By the time he turned up my Mum was in a fairly high level of discomfort and was about to call the British Embassy. This pattern of my Dad not being around was to be a regular part of the next three years.
Alex arriving in Kenya with his mother.
We drove to our house in an area called Limuru about 30 miles outside Nairobi in beautiful hills full of tea gardens and private estates. The house was set in a big garden by the road and the nearest neighbours were in a local village about 1 mile away. We arrived in 1969, six years after independence that took place in 1963 following the Mau-Mau uprising. With the recent events, Kenya was not always a welcoming place: my Mum describes her sense of being extremely isolated in the house, new to Africa, not sure if whites were accepted or hated for the colonial period. We had a guard who arrived with his spear every night and sat outside in the total darkness.
Alex with cook Njenga (left), and friend Gatonye (right).
Our household in Limuru consisted of me, my Mum, Njenga the cook. Sometimes Gatonye was there too. He was a ten year old boy whom my Dad had rescued from a gang digging roads nearby. He had seen the little boy down in the hole in the road mixing cement and said ‘Get out, you are coming with me.” Gatonye was from the nearby village and my Dad went to his family to explain that he wanted Gatonye to live with us rather than make roads, and that he would pay for his schooling.
My Dad’s job required him to often be away from home. His favourite memories of the three years we lived in Kenya were of traveling to Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and throughout Kenya with his colleagues including Terry Waite who later was kidnapped in Lebanon for some years. My Dad loved Africa and he loved our time there because his experience was an adventure of travel with exciting friends.
Alex and his mother near their house in Limuru, Kenya. The garden was Alex’s playground and household items were his toys.
However for my Mum and me and later my younger brother, our experience of Kenya was quite different. At home my Mum and I were very dependent on each other and quite isolated. When my Dad would return from his travels, my Mum’s loneliness and fear would lift. Dad had the car so we could drive into Nairobi and eat at the Stanley hotel or the Norfolk. We could swim in the pool and enjoy life.
In this way I spent my three first years. For any child these are very formative years full of learning and discovery and I was a very active child. We had a big garden with a duck pond and my Dad said that the 24 ducks were all mine. I would run around after them learning how to herd them this way and that. I would play in the garden with whatever I could find in nature.
In the house I would spend time with my friend Gatonye and the cook. I would baby-talk in Swahili and Kikuyu and English and play with anything that came to hand until it fell apart. The mud and the water, our household things and a few toys were all I had to nourish the rich tapestry of my imagination. The enjoyment of things and materials took the place of what might have been play with little friends had I been living in England.
Alex’s family spent some weeks in Mombasa in the south of Kenya after his brother was born.
The three years of relative isolation in Africa built a deep well of energy within me - nourishing me with an enormous desire to explore, to play and to discover, that has been the fuel in growing my business. Being outside all day in nature, with the smells, the red earth and the people of Kenya, and the occasional visits to places like Mombasa gave me an ingrained sense of ingenuity, perseverance and joy of new things. It occurs to me now that this sense is what has driven my creative impulses and my desire to go deeply into an exploration of materials themselves.
Alex today in his workshops in Thailand.
I am aware that those early years in Kenya have also given me something of an anxious world view due to my mother’s experience of isolation and fear. But I find solace in the design and discovery that I do in my workshop. With each new collection I subconsciously unearth those early impressions and energies and channel them into the design and craft process. In this way I have built something of a refuge where rare materials and techniques can be lovingly brought to life in a culture – the culture of Thailand - that has always been kind and supportive.
A sunburst of straw marquetry emerges from beneath layers of lacquer.